Composed in 1961, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, Robert Ward’s The Crucible has been revived in a new production for Glimmerglass Opera in upstate New York. With a libretto by Bernard Stambler closely following the text of the eponymous play by Arthur Miller, Ward’s opera has been staged infrequently since its New York City Opera première, mostly in academic environments where young singers were ready to fulfill the numerous secondary roles. Despite keeping its place in the public eye, very few would include the work on a list of important operas created in the second half of the 20th century.
Rooted in the idiom of Aaron Copland – Ward’s one time teacher at Tanglewood – the score includes some interesting moments alluding to old Puritanical hymns and to tunes reminiscent of authentic folk songs, all helping to convey the pervading tone of the times. Overall, the orchestral music is too subservient to the text, following its every twist and turn. Segments – such as the Reverend Hale's Act I discourse or the protagonist John Proctor's last speech – start as arias but quickly dissolve into their surroundings losing their character. Mostly bland, the music is incapable to bring forward the brutality, irrationality and the overall atmosphere of fear and suspicion during the 1692 witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts. It does little to intensify the doubts and drama of individual characters. It is following the action towards its tragic denouement instead of foreshadowing it as Poulenc’s score does in his Dialogues des Carmélites, an opera with a similar gruesome narrative, composed only five years earlier.
Canadian conductor Nicole Paiement did everything she could to energize the score and the members of the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra followed her with disciplined eagerness. More than anything else, Glimmerglass is a wonderful training ground for young voices and several members of the festival’s Young Artists Program did shine indeed in this performance. Soprano Ariana Wehr interpreted with aplomb and theatrical ability the difficult role of Abigail Williams, the cause for Proctor’s avowed lechery. Her penetrating voice was well suited to render all the hysterical machinations of the young servant, ready to do anything to destroy her former lover’s marriage. Her companion in the group of accusing girls, the flip-flopping witness Mary Warren, was the mellifluous soprano Maren Weinberger, arguably the prettiest and freshest voice in the cast. Mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams as Tituba, the West Indian slave, invoked with soulfulness the time of Tituba’s youth. Another young mezzo, Helena Brown, magically brought to live the rectitude of old Rebecca Nurse, unwavering in her decision not to lie in order to save her life.
As for the already established festival’s guests, baritone Brian Mulligan clearly conveyed the anguish of John Proctor and Jamie Barton, with her deep and warm mezzo, was wonderful in the role of his loving and carrying wife. Jay Hunter Morris, this season’s artist in residence at Glimmerglass, made little use of his formidable Heldentenor voice as Judge Danforth but he did bring forth the character’s rigidity and megalomania.
Francesca Zambello, Glimmerglass’ Artistic and General Director, decided on a mise-en-scène anchored in the time of the story and she moved along the narrative with her trademark clarity. Jessica Jahn's costumes were distinctive for the American colonial past. Neil Patel used the same shifting wooden walls to frame John Proctor’s modest New England dwelling, the courthouse and the open space where Abigail is waiting for her former lover. There is never a roof, just sad, lifeless branches hanging.
When Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible in 1953, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the play was an allegory for McCarthyism and the “red menace” witch-hunts. Nowadays, there are fewer and fewer spectators who can relate to the horrors that characterized this particularly dark period in the United States’ history. There is the danger that they would interpret ad litteram what they see, as a depiction of an ancient fait divers. More than other plays – or operas – The Crucible is naturally suited for an atemporal staging. As Ivo van Hove’s recent production of the play on Broadway has abundantly proved, the characters and the circumstances in which they find themselves are timelessly tragic and very, very close to each of us.
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